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Guilty of letting friendships slide? An emerging body of research reveals loneliness is a bigger threat to health than smoking or being overweight.

We’re told eating well, exercising regularly, avoiding cigarettes, limiting alcohol and managing stress is a simple-yet-comprehensive list of healthy habits that combat the effects of 60-hour weeks chained to your desk. 

Except it’s not. 

According to the Australian Psychological Society’s Australian Loneliness Report 2018, an estimated one in four Australian adults is lonely, and a growing body of research shows loneliness is a bigger threat to life expectancy than traditional factors like smoking, obesity, insufficient exercise and alcohol consumption. In fact, a 2015 study found that feeling lonely increases the risk of early death by a whopping 26 per cent, which is a very compelling reason to add meaningful social connections to your recipe for a healthy lifestyle. 

The risks of flying solo

Loneliness is usually a sign that our relationships are inadequate or don’t meet our expectations or needs. That’s not to say having only a handful of friends is the cause: according to the Loneliness Report, loneliness is related more to the quality than the quantity of relationships.

What’s more, it’s possible to feel lonely even when you’re surrounded by other people. “Loneliness is a psychological state, not a physical one, so what matters is not being alone but feeling alone,” says Alex Haslam, a professor of psychology at The University of Queensland. “You can feel socially connected when alone at the top of a mountain, but lonely in a large crowd.”

Loneliness is strongly related to poor mental and physical health. Perhaps unsurprisingly, lonely people are more likely to be depressed than people who aren’t lonely. Loneliness also has a negative impact on how the brain works, its ability to handle cognitive tasks, and inflammation in the body – and according to a 2016 article published in Harvard Men’s Health Watch, it’s associated with an increased risk of chronic conditions like heart disease and dementia.

Alex Haslam, professor of psychology, The University of Queensland Alex Haslam, professor of psychology, The University of Queensland

Loneliness is a psychological state, not a physical one, so what matters is not being alone but feeling alone. You can feel socially connected when alone at the top of a mountain, but lonely in a large crowd.

A lonely mind

So why is loneliness linked to so many scary health outcomes? Humans are social animals and our reliance on social groups has ensured our survival as a species. When our innate need to belong to a group is unmet, we feel lonely, which triggers a stress response in the brain, explains clinical psychologist Dr Michelle Lim, scientific chair of the Australian Coalition to End Loneliness and a senior lecturer at Swinburne University of Technology.

“When we process this stress response, it affects us physiologically, so we have poorer blood pressure regulation, poorer immune regulation, poorer cardiovascular health, and poorer sleep, which is a restorative process,” she says. 

Some studies have identified a ‘loneliness gene’ that increases the impact of social isolation on health, and there’s also research to suggest that loneliness is contagious – people who spend time with lonely people are more likely to become lonely themselves.

Arguably, however, one of the biggest contributors to loneliness and growing concern that it’s a serious global public health challenge – for example, the UK has implemented a Campaign to End Loneliness and appointed a Minister for Loneliness – is the pace and structure of modern life. One quarter of Australians live alone, we commute an average of 16 kilometres to and from work each day, and we spend more time peering at our phones than ever. 

“All of these things contribute to a big picture of someone’s potential to be very isolated, and therefore to feel more lonely,” says VicHealth’s manager for mental wellbeing, Irene Verins. “In particular, there appears to be a link between loneliness and too much monologue – or one-way communication – and not enough two-way dialogue on social media.”

Loneliness statistics

Loneliness at work

International research shows that young people and older folks are particularly susceptible to the impacts of loneliness, but Dr Lim says busy professionals aren’t immune. 

“With people who are very busy at work, it’s really important to note that even though it may seem like they’re not as vulnerable to loneliness as other groups, friendships and meaningful connections and feeling connected with those around you takes time and effort,” she says. 

“If you’re busy in your career, you may let your friendships, social networks or connections to meaningful social relationships slide without realising it.”

In addition, Verins says the stigma of loneliness – which, like most mental health issues, persists – can be especially prevalent in busy professional settings, which can worsen the impact of feeling alone. “People often feel that talking about loneliness is somehow equated with being a failure, not being a productive worker, or not being successful,” she says. 

How to combat loneliness

In much the same way as hunger is a signal to eat and thirst a signal to drink, loneliness tells us we need to seek out other people. 

“My research suggests that the development of meaningful social group memberships is the best way to achieve this, and that the development of the sense of social identity that underpins these can be a powerful platform for what we call the ‘social cure’,” says Professor Haslam. 

“The idea of the social cure is to improve health and wellbeing by developing group-based connections.”

Importantly, he says it’s not enough to simply join a sports team or book club – what matters is that the group activity is meaningful to you and allows you to develop relationships with other people. 

Cultivating existing relationships is also an effective way to combat loneliness, especially if you lack the time to make new friends, says Dr Lim. 

“Think about how you can make meaningful connections within existing relationships, especially if you’re guilty of being super busy and not really taking the time to nurture relationships,” she says. 

“It’s really important to think about prioritising friendships or relationships because those are the things that are the most meaningful.”

Whether you’re lonely or not, Verins says it’s important that we all help to decrease the stigma of loneliness: “It’s about promoting conversations in the workplace and in other settings and normalising loneliness as an experience”.